Editor's note: "The Possession" was not previewed for Pittsburgh critics.
"The Possession," a Jewish variant on "The Exorcist," recounts the torments of a nice suburban American family that's infiltrated by an evil spirit ("dybbuk" in Yiddish). Actually, the dybbuk is the second malevolent force to attack Clyde and Stephanie (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick) and their two daughters. First came the monster called divorce.
- Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick.
- Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences.
Clyde, a basketball coach who tends to lose track of time when he's at practice, has been banished for being inattentive. But he dotes on 10-year-old Em (Natasha Calis) and 13-ish Hannah (Madison Davenport) whenever he has temporary custody. So he agrees to stop at a yard sale the girls want to visit and doesn't argue when Em insists on buying a dark wooden box inscribed with Hebrew letters. Translated, they probably read, "You're an idiot."
Clyde and the girls haven't been warned, but the audience has. The movie's prologue reveals what happened to a woman who tried to destroy said box. Plus, an introductory note proclaims earnestly that the story is based on "true events."
Anyone who actually believes in dybbuks and other ghoulies will find "The Possession" terrifying. For the rest of us, the movie is a cleverly constructed, well-paced piece of hokum. Director Ole Bornedal, a Danish film veteran, is craftier than most of the young pups making horror pictures these days, and Juliet Snowden and Stiles White's script actually tells a story, rather than just stringing together a series of loud noises and shock cuts.
As you may have guessed from the title, Emily becomes possessed by the dybbuk that was locked (not very well) inside the box. Science can't help her, and neither can family court. So Clyde, whom Stephanie blames for Em's problems, makes a frantic drive to Brooklyn, seeking help from Hasidic rabbis. Most of them shy away, but one person agrees to help: a tzadok ("righteous man") named Tzadok. He's played by, of all people, Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu.
"The Possession" hits a few contemporary notes. Rather than move to an old, dark house after the divorce, Clyde buys a brand-new home in a housing-bubble graveyard full of half-finished, abandoned structures. And the girls are vegans, upset whenever an animal is killed -- even if the critter is a demonic familiar.
The movie also relies on the usual scare-flick conventions, notably the tendency of characters (especially those most at risk) to enter darkened rooms. When Tzadok starts chanting in Hebrew, his words aren't subtitled. But "let there be light" would certainly be appropriate.